The Coral Garden in 2020
The South Sea Reef Rehab coral garden on Boayan Island is one of a few projects in Palawan where people are actively growing corals and helping rebuild underwater ecosystems. Over the past four years, I have documented this place flourishing and becoming a haven for marine life.
This year I visited Boayan in September, during the southwest monsoon (habagat) season. At that time, sea temperatures in the Philippines had been consistently high for around six months and a mass coral-bleaching event was underway. During “bleaching” corals lose the symbiotic algae which give them their color and keep them alive. The white coral skeleton is exposed and, if they are not able to recover their symbiotic algae within a few weeks, the corals die.
The increasing frequency and extent of coral bleaching is an effect of anthropogenic climate change. This is the first time that the Philippines has experienced mass coral bleaching during a year without an El Niño warm phase. Scientists at the nationwide citizen science program Philippines Coral Bleaching Watch now expect to receive reports of coral bleaching most years towards the end of summer and during the subsequent habagat season.
During our visit to Boayan, a low-pressure area over the Sulu Sea transformed into Tropical Storm Noul. We stayed on the island for five days while it passed slowly overhead bringing with it strong winds and rain.
Before the storm hit us, the water was 32-3ºC. Many corals had turned white or were glowing otherworldly, fluorescent colors. By the fourth day of rains, temperatures were down to 29-30ºC however this is still high for September and until now it is unsure how many corals will recover.
Scientists studying the phenomenon of fluorescing in corals are still working out what causes this “colorful bleaching” and what it means for coral health. It seems that corals produce photoprotective fluorescent pigment as a kind of sunscreen, to reduce UV levels in their tissue and encourage symbiotic algae to return. Glowing in the dark waters, with the storm raging overhead, the corals seem to be signaling to us – are they sending out a warning, or are they beacons of hope?